By the year 2000 only one of the original Seven Wonders of the World remained, Egypt’s Pyramids at Giza. A list originally created more than a century before Christ’s birth was ready for updating. In 2007, over 100 million votes, cast across the planet, created a new Seven Wonders list.
Surprisingly, Mexico’s Chichén Itzá was selected, rather than Egypt’s pyramids, in a top seven that also featured The Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Christ the Redeemer, The Colosseum, Petra and Taj Mahal.
For visitors to the Mayan Riviera, usually flying into Cancun on the Yucatán peninsula, nosing into warm Caribbean waters, the epic archaeological site of Chichén Itzá is a bucket-list site to tick off in their Mexican adventure. Hot, frequently steamy and surrounded by jungle, you almost expect a sweat drenched Indiana Jones, bull-whip in hand, to stride across the scene.
Mexico’s Caribbean coast
Chichén Itzá has little in common with The Great Pyramid at Giza. Constructed 4,500 years ago, the largest Egyptian pyramid, at 150 metres tall, dwarfs the 30 metres tall Mexican version. In comparison, the New World pyramid, is a relative new kid on the block, built around 600 AD. Mayan pyramids, stone blocks bound together with lime mortar, were steeper and more ornate than their distant Egyptian cousins.
To put things into perspective, whilst the Mayan civilisation was designing a stone-built temple sitting upon nine platforms, British tribes were still messily experimenting with wattle and daub shacks.
In a perfect world, the best days to visit Chichén Itzá are the 20th March and 22nd September. As a sophisticated civilisation, Mayan mathematicians with detailed astronomical knowledge, calculated that on the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, they could use the sun’s rays to create a shadow across the Kukulkan Pyramid, giving the appearance of a serpent slowly slithering down the stone steps.
But as September is the rainy season, with hot and humid energy-sapping conditions, it is best to schedule a visit for dryer March. Another practicality to consider is the long drive from the coast, at least two hours. Sometimes the if return hits rush hour traffic, it can be a three-hour journey.
Staying amongst the Spanish colonial style architecture of Vallodolid for a night and arriving early at Chichén Itzá before the crowds is a tactic that avoids an exhausting 12-hour excursion in temperatures usually exceeding 30 centigrade.
Vallodolid makes for a convenient starting point
And how did the name originate? Chichén Itzá translates as “the mouth at the well of Itzá”, where Itzá may mean “water magicians”. For this was no ordinary well, it was believed to be a portal from this world into the next, a spiritual world. As El Castillo, the famous pyramid which dominates the site, was built on the site of a much older temple, the site seems to have been revered for many centuries.
Much Mayan belief and culture was lost as the civilisation declined, probably as a consequence of water shortages. Centuries of decay, a brutal climate and Spanish Conquistadors, determined to eliminate evidence of any religion that was not Christian, meant that Chichén Itzá was overgrown and lost to the world until discovered by an American explorer in 1841.
Perhaps the greatest mystery of all is the high-stakes ball game, a contest that really was a matter of life-and-death. The losing team were sacrificed. Although we know little of how the game was played, the tlachtli, the ball court, is huge. Clap your hands and you will hear the echo. Mayan architects were skilled with acoustics too.
The Platform of Skulls
Death is a significant theme in Chichén Itzá, the departure point for the next world. Tzampantli, The Platform of Skulls, is an ominous rack of skulls, carved into the stone to warn the people of their leaders’ power and also, probably, to intimidate enemies.
For all its brutality, the Mayans created a remarkably advanced civilisation. Chichén Itzá’s pyramids, where only priests were permitted to climb the steps to pray, were at the heart of a large city. Its university welcomed visiting lecturers who had travelled many miles from other Mayan cities. Whilst Europe descended into the Dark Ages, Mayan culture was reaching its zenith.